While in San Francisco I got to visit three different software developers, all quite different from each other and representing the spectrum of success, innovation and acceptance. The first I'll talk about is Hotel Tonight; the other two will follow as separate posts.
Hotel Tonight is nothing but a stellar success story. It started out as three people in a noisy little rented space over a bar just three-and-a-half years ago in San Mateo, but it's now located in a large, very well-equipped office in downtown San Francisco.
The concept is very simple: an app tells you what hotels have rooms available close to you. So while it sounds simple, there's far more to it. It has been carefully thought out. For a start, it's an app-only service. If you have your iPhone with you, you have the capability to book a hotel instantly - no loading up of a website.
The hotels have to sign up to the service, making their room availability very up-to-date, and they'll sell the rooms at a discount to help keep a hotel full. Nothing new there - websites already do this. Hotels have to be able to sell a room at discount and prepared to have their guest show up two minutes later.
For the guest, savings are often 25 per cent and sometimes even better. The value-add for you is a certain amount of certainty - Hotel Tonight staff inspect the hotel before accepting it into its fold, categorises it (if accepted) then sends in its own photographers to shoot the shots you see in the app, guaranteeing you get a realistic impression of a room.
The result is a far more immediate and tailored service, and while you're not likely to rock up in a distant city with long-haul luggage and only at that late point, take your chances, the app is very handy if you need to stay an extra night somewhere, want a couple of days under your own steam to tag onto the end of a business trip or you simply get stuck in town and decide to over-night.
No seedy dives - the hotels tend to be at the top end or boutique. They have to pass that inspection. There are more basic hotels on the service, but even with these you can be assured they reach a certain standard.
For New Zealand travellers, this country isn't covered. The app started with US hotels and expanded out from there, but it's still expanding. For us, it suits Kiwis heading off overseas or those who do business trips and like to use a few days leave somewhere exotic.
The countries so far covered (only certain cities in each country, please note) are the US and Canada, Austria, England, Germany, Czech Republic, France, Ireland, Hungary, Spain, Netherlands, Italy, and Mexico and Costa Rica.
There's a list on this page - just scroll down.
The app itself is free for iOS, Android and Windows phone, with download links from the above page.
The Hotel Tonight logo looks like an H for Hotel, and like a bed and also like a key - to confirm your booking, you swipe the last leg of the logo. The app and service was founded by Sam Shank and Jared Simon, the current CEOs, and they have made their HQ a good space to work in, with a table tennis table, art on the walls and even a fully equipped bar - as Sam Shank says, every hotel should have a good bar. They've been here for about one-and-a-half years, but to remind them of their humble beginnings, the original sketch of the app concept is still on the wall, and it's on a shower panel from Home Depot. They couldn't afford whiteboards back then.
How times have changed. Their mission is "to make travel more spontaneous, accessible and human" and it's succeeding. They think the shift from newspaper ads to online was dramatic for hotels, but the shift to mobile is as dramatic.
At first, the app only worked in san Francisco, Los Angeles and New York, but the vision was always global. Now, ten million people have downloaded the app, which covers over 300 cities, and the company is working on developing South America and Asia next. They now have nearly 130 employees in San Francisco and an office in London.
The app shows you the images HT staff took, and place the hotel on a map (having geo-located the client) so you can get there as easily as possible.
Every night, around 40 per cent of hotel rooms can be empty. It's difficult for hotels to market those rooms without antagonising the traditional market of people who book in advance - but the app means only a specific subset of potential clients is reached. Also, the hotels available rotate nightly - you'll get a different selection on a different night. This means the hotels can aggressively discount via the app without affecting (so much) that traditional market.
The hotels get a way to fill those rooms, the clients get great deals that are close to them physically. Categories are labelled in funky ways: basic, hip, luxe etc. They feel the app is lots better than web-based alternatives, as you can book a hotel in around 8 seconds with only three taps and a swipe.
A new category, 'Charming', covers B&Bs. The app is also responsive to local conditions: while in san Francisco, booting the app prompted a message that WWDC was on, so rooms were harder to find and a bit more expensive than usual.
Overseas from the US, HT hires local to approach the hotels and also to capture 'the local vibe' to do justice to clients and locales. Growth has accelerated in the last six months once the major hotel chains noticed the traffic the boutique hotels were getting thanks to the app.
The company has a quality imperative: a 24-hour support line (phone and email) in five languages direct from the app ensures no guests are ever left stranded anywhere. Input from the users help build profiles of the hotels that are as honest as possible.
The hotel staff get a web and/or mobile interface that just asks them two questions: how many rooms do you have and what price? They send that once a day. To remove a room, they just select it and Delete, and the deletion is registered by the app.
Hotel Tonight was exclusively on iOS and iPhones at first, as it's that combo that gave the co-founders the idea for the app. An iPad version came out soon after the iPad 3 launch, and think the Review process in the App Store is wonderful, and in stark contrast to the Google model with Android, although there is now an Android version.
On reviews, the ones you see in the app for a hotel are added by registered clients.
Reviews can only be added once a stay is complete. As part of the review, smartphone owners are also encouraged to take their own pictures. The CEOs feel very confident the reviews can't be 'gamed': they're as authentic as it's possible to get.
Recently, a look-ahead feature means you can book a couple of days in advance.
This company is a resounding success - and a life-saver if you're stranded somewhere glamorous.